J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Dating the Forster Flag

Today Doyle New York auctions the Forster Flag, an unusual banner said to date from the Revolutionary War (shown here before its recent conservation).

As I discussed yesterday, the family that owned the flag in the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century passed down lore that it had been captured from British troops on 19 Apr 1775, but that doesn’t seem plausible.

A rival, contradictory claim is Lt. Samuel Forster and his Manchester militia company marched under this flag on that day. That means it would have had to be remade with its thirteen stripes  in 1774 or early 1775.

In 2002 The Flag Bulletin ran an analysis (P.D.F. download) accepting that story and concluding that this was “the first American flag ever made.” (Of course, the author of that article was Dr. Whitney Smith, who had bought the flag from Forster’s descendants for the Flag Heritage Foundation. The foundation is now selling the flag to create an endowment to benefit the Whitney Smith Flag Research Center Collection at the University of Texas.)

I find the idea of this being a pre-war flag to be as dubious as the story about it being captured.

In April 1775, Massachusetts militiamen still presented themselves as British subjects fighting for British rights and the British constitution against a corrupt ministry in London. American Patriots didn’t break with George III and Britain until the first half of 1776.

Before the war American Whigs flew the British flag as part of their protests to make the claim that they were being more patriotic than their opponents. Boston’s Sons of Liberty raised a “Union flag,” probably one with a red field and the British Ensign as its canton, at Liberty Tree. When Whigs in Taunton hoisted a flag on their Liberty Pole in 1774, it had a British canton and the motto “Liberty and Union” sewn to its red field. There are many prewar reports of American protesters marching under British Union flags but none describing flags with thirteen stripes.

That’s because American Patriots weren’t making a fetish of the number thirteen in April 1775. That spring, only twelve colonies were participating in the Continental Congress. (Georgia hadn’t sent any delegates.) Furthermore, that Congress was hoping that Canada and perhaps Nova Scotia and the Floridas would add to their continental alliance. Only at the end of 1775 did the Congress authorize a naval flag with thirteen stripes—and those stripes still appeared under the British Union canton.

So do I think the Forster Flag’s Revolutionary history is a myth? Not at all. I think its current form clearly dates from the Revolutionary War. But it was created after the first year of that war, perhaps after independence. It’s an artifact of Americans rethinking how they presented themselves, moving from British or English subjects, as symbolized by the original canton, into citizens of a new thirteen-member alliance.

Just how to symbolize that continental alliance was still being worked out in the first years of the war. This banner’s scheme of six strips on one side and seven on the other clearly didn’t work. Eventually the Congress decided on a new national emblem. Maybe this cloth is so well preserved because Forster’s company didn’t fly it for long in either its British or American forms.

As the war receded into memory, Americans stopped telling stories about the gradual 1775-76 transition away from thinking of themselves as British. The story of a British flag owned and flown by Americans being changed into an early American banner became a heroic story of capturing a British regimental banner, or a premature tale of marching as Americans on April 19th. But this flag’s stitching, read properly in context, tells its own story of a significant national transition during the war.


Chaucerian said...

It interests me that Dr. Smith founded the flag research journal when he was 21, a young age. I am assuming that his graduate degrees are in political science, because that was the field in which he took up his first academic appointment. I hope that he has been able to find other scholars of flags with whom he can work and discuss ideas. Bearing the burden of being "the expert" is a difficult task.

G. Lovely said...

Since Smith reportedly founded the field of Vexillology and even coined the term, being "the Expert" carries a huge burden.

The fact that he's from Winchester, MA could also call into question his objectivity in regards to this particular artifact.

J. L. Bell said...

Dr. Smith is from Winchester, but the flag came from Manchester. (Now Manchester-by-the-Sea.)

meryka said...

Thanks you for this very interesting article.
There are precedents for striped flags––such as the Sons of Liberty flag of 1765 which had nine stripes, representing the nine colonies of the Stamp Act Congress.
In June of 1777 Congress voted for a flag with 13 stripes. (Flag Day)
And an interesting British example, –– on May 18, 1778 one of the barges at the British Meschianza was said to have flown a 13 stripe pennant. (If anyone knows more about this, please let me know. I can't find my reference for it.)

Peter Ansoff said...

Dr. Smith was in the audience at the Star Spangled Flag House symposium when I presented my paper about the Flag on Prospect Hill. He came up to me afterwards and said (with a grin) "As a lifelong Bostonian I don't like your conclusion very much, but I think you're probably right."

J. L. Bell said...

I met Dr. Smith once, at a session about the "Sons of Liberty Flag." I'd come to different conclusions from him, but I don't doubt his diligence in studying flags.

J. L. Bell said...

Meryka, I don't think the nine-stripe Sons of Liberty is authentic. No such flag is described in the records of pre-Revolutionary Boston. The cloth is machine-woven, which makes it very unlikely to date from before 1775 and even less likely to be what the Sons of Liberty chose for their anti-importation banner. The flag comes into the record in the mid-1800s, and I haven't been able to trace its provenance.

The Continental Congress adopted thirteen stripes on its naval banner at the end of 1775, and that led to the thirteen stripes on today's national flag. But that was well after the supposed date of the Forster Flag.